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A&E Home Video presents
The Planets (1999)

"What I had discovered was a huge plume of a volcanic eruption arising 270 kilometers over the surface of Io and raining back down on it. So I had discovered the first ever volcanic eruption ever seen on another world besides the Earth."
- Linda Hyder, Voyager Navigation Engineer

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: September 26, 2000

Stars: Karen Stone (narrator)
Director: unknown

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 06h:01m:23s
Release Date: May 02, 2000
UPC: 733961700985
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB+ C-

DVD Review

If you're like me, most everything you know about the planets and the rest of the solar system comes from 6th and 7th grade science class. As such, I was excited at the opportunity to view The Planets for two reasons. First, I was excited at the chance to view a well-developed documentary series. Second, I was excited at the opportunity to learn something about a fascinating subject that I know little about. On both levels, The Planets generally comes through.

Like the ever-popular Walking With Dinosaurs, The Planets is a BBC-produced documentary series released for worldwide consumption on DVD. It is ambitious in its scope, seeking to educate the viewer on both the history of man's attempts to find out more about his universe as well as the planets and other celestial bodies themselves. To accomplish this goal, The Planets makes use of fascinating (and some never before aired) space program archival footage, both from the U.S. and from the former Soviet Union, interview segments with many of the scientists involved, actual footage of the planets taken by various space probes and wonderful computer-generated animation.

The Planets is presented in eight separate episodes, each just over 45 minutes in length, described below:

Different Worlds - Our solar system contains nine unique planets. How did these nine planets of remarkably unique physical compositions and sizes come into being? This episode explores the "accretion theory", the most highly regarded theory on the creation of the planets. Additionally, a close look at each of the planets is presented.

Terra Firma - This episode covers man's search for geologic life on other worlds. Geologically, the Earth is very much alive. We have volcanoes and tectonic plate movement and the world is constantly changing. Mercury, on the other hand, is a dead rock. Are there other worlds in the universe that, like Earth, exhibit active geologic activity?

Giants - Through the eyes of Pioneer and Voyager, we explore the outer planets; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Experience the tribulations scientists endured and eventually overcame in order to take a closer look at these massive outer planets and see what we learned when they were finally able to examine them, and their moons, up close.

Moon - Relive the massive "space race" between the Soviet Union and the United States to get to the moon. Once the moon was finally conquered, learn what rock samples from the moon told scientists about its origin.

Star - The sun is the battery that powers the solar system. Learn about the efforts to study the sun throughout history, from Galileo to Skylab and beyond. Such subjects as sunspots, the aurora borealis, and solar winds are explored.

Atmosphere - Not every planet is an airless ball of rock like our Moon. This episode concerns itself with the atmospheres of our own planet and the other planets/moons that have managed to hold onto an atmosphere as well (Venus, Titan, and so on).

Life: Beyond the Sun - This episode concerns itself with man's search for life on the other worlds of our solar system. Scientists of last century and the first half of this century developed fantastic theories about possible life on the planets they saw through their telescopes. Alas, the searches have not yet yielded anything but hope is still held for places like Jupiter's moon Europa, which may host an ocean under its outer shell of ice.

Destiny - What lies ahead for the solar system? What will things look like in a billion years? This episode focuses on trying to answer these questions. As the sun ages it becomes hotter. How will this gradual change effect Earth and the other planets? What will ultimately happen to the sun itself? Additionally, this episode introduces us to a special kind of astronomer, the "planet hunter". These men study distant star systems in search of planets. Learn about what they discovered thus far?

The Planets is generally pleasing both visually and audibly. Jim Meacock's original music is not exceptional but it does add a nice sapidity to the presentation. Some of the archival footage is fascinating and, as I mentioned above, most of the computer-generated animation is incredible in its detail and vividness. Alas, the biggest weakness of The Planets is in its ambitious scope. It tries to do too much in too little time. In educating us about the various efforts of man to travel into space, it scores well. I learned a lot I didn't know, especially about the Soviet space program and the huge strides they made early on (much of which I was suspiciously not taught in school). In the program's efforts to educate us about the planets themselves it flounders somewhat. I was left wanting for much more than the basic overviews offered. Not that I didn't learn some great stuff. I certainly did. It's just that I suspect that there is much, much more that never made it into each episode's 45-minute runtime.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The Planets is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, which is one major disadvantage of the region 1 version of this documentary series. The Region 2 release is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Since The Planets is comprised from various sources, including vintage space program footage from as long ago as the late 50s, to vintage and modern interview segments, to fantastic computer-generated animation, image quality varies dramatically in each episode. The vintage footage is often quite grainy and riddled with blemishes, as would be expected. The modern interview segments tend to be less than crisp and suffer somewhat from overly muted colors.

The real visual treat offered by The Planets are the numerous computer-generated animation sequences. The level of detail, color, and realism on many of these images is simply outstanding. Alas, there is even some inconsistency with the animation's visual quality. Most of the animated scenes are crisp and beautiful with no faults whatsoever, but the occasional image is heavy with what appears to be fine digital pixelation. Perhaps this is a result of certain scenes being compressed to fit into the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as opposed to simply being cropped.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Planets is presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo. However, when played through a receiver in "Dolby" or "pro-logic" mode, significant sound is heard through the surround speakers, adding an enveloping effect to the audio presentation. The narrator's voice is clear and distinguished against what is almost constant background sound. Many of the sound effects used in conjunction with the computer-generated animation are quite impressive. Occasional effective use of directional effects within the front soundstage is also present. If I can fault this audio presentation for anything it would be for sporadic voice volume problems during a handful of the modern interview segments. Overall, The Planets is a very pleasing auditory experience.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Packaging: Alpha
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single
Layers Switch: n/a

Extra Extras:
  1. Web links to AandE.com, Biography.com, HistoryChannel.com, and Mysteries.com
  2. Web links for space camp information.
  3. Animated visual eclipse calendar.
Extras Review: While hardly extras-laden, The Planets does come with an interesting batch of extras, especially for those with a DVD-ROM drive. Integrated web links are included for all four of A&E's webpages. Additionally, web links are included for three different space camps. Lastly, a really neat animated eclipse calendar is included on the third disc in the set. Unfortunately, according to this calendar there will not be an eclipse optimally viewed in the US again until 2015 or so. A making of documentary, like the one included with Walking With Dinosaurs, would have been a great additional touch but no such luck.

Alas, packaging is another reason why the Region 2 release of The Planets will be preferable to the Region 1 release, at least for some. This Region 1 release comes in a 4-disc set, one per case, contained in an attractive cardboard sleeve. Each disc is single-layered and contains two episodes. The Region 2 release contains two dual-layered discs with four episodes per disc and comes in a single keepcase. If you are concerned about space on your shelf, or strongly prefer the more streamlined appearance, the Region 2 release may be worth picking up if you possess the means to play it.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

While probably not as strong as Walking With Dinosaurs as an educational and entertaining experience, The Planets is a very well put together documentary series that is sure to fascinate young and old. If you have a region-free player, it may be worth the effort to get the Region 2 release of this series due to its anamorphic widescreen presentation and more compact packaging.


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